The Triune God
The Apostles' Creed • Sermon • Submitted
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How much doctrine does anyone need to know in order to become a Christian?
Sinners need to believe in Jesus, but which Jesus? The one who empowers you to be the best you, or the one who satisfied God’s wrath against you?
Sinners need to repent from sin, but what sin… and what does repentance look like? Is sin just the stuff I feel really bad about, or is it the stuff God says is off-limits? Is repentance a feeling of remorse, or is it actually turning away from those sins I love and turning toward a life of humble obedience?
You get the point… Once we start drilling down into familiar words and phrases, we start to realize just how much doctrine is actually there.
J.I. Packer picked a little on the “ABC” method of evangelism when he wrote, “In the interests of memorable simplicity… [many have] boiled the gospel down to an ABC, commonly formulated as follows:
(1) all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, you included;
(2) believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved;
(3) confess Jesus Christ as the risen Lord, and he will in due course welcome you into heaven” (Packer, 15-16).
But, as Packer went on to say, “In such [an environment of simplicity], a truncated version of the gospel message...becomes a misrepresentation, one that sows the seed of many pastoral problems down the road” (Packer, 16-17).
He argued that our simple gospel presentations can often “present Christ the Redeemer apart from God the Creator, and remission of sins apart from personal regeneration, and individual salvation apart from life and worship [as part of] the church, and the hope of heaven apart from the pilgrim path of holiness” (Packer, 16-17; emphasis mine).
The kind of pastoral problems Mr. Packer is warning about here are really discipling problems… and they seem to inevitably arise when someone who responded to “ABC” evangelism is told that he or she must be connected with the visible body of Christ, not merely associated with the invisible body. Or that he or she must trust and obey Jesus as King, not merely enjoy the benefits of His gracious sacrifice.
Friends, many of us can think of names and faces of people right now who admitted, believed, and confessed at some point in their lives… and yet they have no real interest in living as a Christian in any meaningful sense.
So, again I ask, how much doctrine does anyone need to know in order to become a Christian?
The earliest Christians (so far as we can tell) thought that the Apostles’ Creed was a sort of minimum doctrinal standard. Quoting Packer again, “The Creed itself was born as an instrument of evangelism – first, as a summary syllabus for catechetical teaching of the faith… and then as a declaration of personal faith for converts to use at the time of their baptism” (Packer, 17).
You might be interested to know that early Christian churches (within a generation or two of the death of the Apostles) almost universally embraced a 3-year instruction program to teach “catechumens” what they would need to know to consciously and responsibly convert to Christianity (which was always by baptism into the local church).
At their baptism, the catechumens would recite or at least respond positively to the public recitation of the Apostles’ Creed… substantially the same creed we have today.
Brothers and sisters, this is the basic doctrine of the Christian faith. Christians can (and I think should) believe more than this; but to be a Christian, you cannot believe less or contrary to the statements of this creed.
As we begin our study through this short and profound creed, I want to focus our attention (at the outset) on the essential trinitarian theme which thunders at the beginning and reverberates in each of the three major sections of this creed.
Yeah, I said it… The doctrine of the Trinity is fundamental, elementary, and basic to the Christian faith!
So, how many of you are ready to give a 30 second summary of the doctrine of the Trinity?
Well, if you’re like most Christians, then the doctrine of the Trinity is a bit intimidating to you… but one of my main goals today is to show you just how simple and practical this doctrine can and should be for us.
Let’s start by reading from a strange and magnificent passage of Scripture… and as we read this passage together, I want you to listen for the various ways that “worth” (or value) is ascribed in this passage, and also listen for who is the object of this “worth-ship” or “worship.”
Let’s stand and read together...
Revelation 5:1–14 (ESV)
1 Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”
3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, 4 and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
5 And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.
8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
The explicitly singular God of the Bible has revealed Himself consistently throughout Scripture as a Trinity; namely as Father, Son, and Spirit.
The God of the Bible is One
God is Father, Son, and Spirit
The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are Distinct
The Trinity is Central to the Gospel
1) The God of the Bible is One
1) The God of the Bible is One
The quintessential statement:
Deuteronomy 6:4 - “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”
Jesus even cited this verse when someone asked Him which commandment is the most important. Jesus said, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’” (Mk. 12:29-30; cf. Deut. 6:4-5).
A major theme throughout the OT is God’s divine uniqueness
The Exodus story is all about God distinguishing Himself as singular/unique among all other (so called) gods.
“The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel...” (Ex. 7:5).
God’s judgment came, “so that you [Pharaoh and all Egypt] may know that there is no one like the LORD...” (Ex. 8:10).
Indeed, God said it was “for this very purpose [to display His absolute uniqueness and divine character] I have raised you [Pharaoh] up… so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Ex. 9:16).
The main way God distinguished Himself throughout the Old Testament was by speaking with both truth and power… He actually speaks, and His words are trustworthy… unlike the false prophets who served pretend gods.
Isaiah 45 - “18 Thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it… I am the LORD, and there is no other… 19b I the LORD speak the truth; I declare what is right… 20b They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save… 21b [But] there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. 22 Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. 23 By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return...”
Incidentally, for those of us with friends or family members who are Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, Isaiah 45 is an excellent passage to discuss (and it reads basically the same in the NWT!).
In short, the OT could not be clearer about the uniqueness and the oneness of God… The God of the OT is explicitly singular.
Jesus Himself said that the gospel of the NT focused on knowing the one God of the OT. Jesus said, as He prayed, “this is eternal life...” to “know… the only true God” (Jn. 17:3).
In no uncertain terms the NT tells us that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus...” (1 Tim. 2:5).
In fact, I argue that the NT teaches us that the same singular God who made promises in the OT has fulfilled and is fulfilling His promises… in the person and work of Jesus Christ!
To the Jew, the gospel of the NT focused on the evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Messiah or Christ of old.
To the Gentile (who had no grounding in the OT), the gospel focused more on the same sort of “God-man-Christ-response” message that we’ve talked about many times… which still highlights the fact that there is one God who saves guilty sinners through the person and work of His Son.
For example, when the Apostle Paul addressed a bunch of Greek Gentiles in Athens, he said, “The God who made the world and everything in it… [does not] need anything… [but] he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything… [and] he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed [to this role]; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising [this man] from the dead” (Acts 17:24-31).
In other words:
There is one God, who created and rules all!
Repent from sin and idolatry and unbelief; or else face the wrath of the one God, which will come by the hand of Jesus Christ!
Friends, the Bible is clear (in both the Old Testament and the New): there is one God… the God of the Bible is one… He is singular.
Whatever else we might say about God, we cannot ever speak of or think in terms of a plurality of gods. The God of the Bible has no equal, and there is no other god beside or like Him.
And yet, this singular God has also revealed Himself as three in a different sense. God has revealed Himself as one what and three whos.
2) God is Father, Son, and Spirit
2) God is Father, Son, and Spirit
It has been said that the gospel (the person and work of Jesus Christ) is a mystery concealed in the Old Testament and a mystery revealed in the New.
The doctrine of the Trinity is similarly concealed or vague or (in a sense) hidden in the Old Testament.
But God’s trinitarian nature is never contradicted, nor is it (it seems to me) entirely absent from the Old Testament.
And it is a major (even inescapable!) doctrine in the New Testament.
Al Mohler says, “The complete revelation of God as ‘Father’ has roots in the Old Testament, where God is described as the Father of Israel (Deut. 32:6). The fatherly love of God is also present throughout the Old Testament… [the Psalmist] described God as a ‘Father to the fatherless’ (Ps. 68:5).” (p. 6).
But, as Mohler goes on to say, “The complete revelation of God as Father comes with the life and ministry of Jesus” (p. 6).
It was Jesus who taught Christians how to pray by addressing God as “Our Father in heaven...” (Matt. 6:9; Lk. 11:2).
Jesus taught Christians to think of God as a loving and generous “Father” who “knows [our] needs” and is “well-pleased” to provide for His children (Lk. 11:11; cf. Lk. 12:30-32).
And, incredibly, the first message Jesus wanted His disciples to hear from Him after His resurrection from the dead was, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:17).
Clearly, the Bible wants us to know that the Father is God!
The author of Hebrews teaches us that Psalm 2 is actually a prophecy about Jesus.
In Psalm 2, God predicts that His own “Son” will will be the universal king over “all the earth” …the one who embodies both God’s “refuge” and His “wrath.”
And, of course, this is the entire point of the opening of the book of Hebrews.
God’s Son is indeed the “heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2).
God’s Son is the one “through whom… the world… [was] created” (Heb. 1:2).
And God’s Son is “the radiance of the glory of God” (Heb. 1:3).
It is clear that God’s Son possesses the same characteristics as God Himself… Indeed the Son of God is God the Son.
Let’s take a deeper look at the passage we all read together just a bit ago… Revelation 5. I want none of us to leave here wondering, “Does the Bible really say that Jesus is God?”
The scene is a spectacular one (drawing from Rev. 4).
There’s a brilliant someone seated on a throne, which is itself decorated with cosmic and earthy beauty.
As the description unfolds, it becomes clear that God the Father is the one upon the throne in Revelation 4 and 5.
From this throne there is lightning and thunder, and the one seated there commands all things and is worshipped constantly by everything in His presence… They “never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:8).
Chapter 5 opens with a new piece of information: “him who was seated on the throne” had a “scroll” in His right hand, and “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (v1-3).
And just as John “began to weep… because no one was found worthy” (v4), one of those worshipping around the throne said, “Weep no more; behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll” (v5).
But when John turned to see this worthy Lion, he saw “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (v6).
Of course, all of these images/descriptions (the Lion, the Root, and the Lamb) refer to Jesus Christ.
And the whole scene climaxes with another focus on worship, but this time it’s not only directed at the one seated on the throne.
John heard “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’” (v13).
Brothers and sisters, Jesus is not merely a god… He is not like God… He is the God… He is the Son of God and God the Son… worthy of all blessing and honor and glory… just as the Father!
The Holy Spirit is notorious for directing all attention toward the Father and the Son, but He too is clearly revealed as God.
When God finally came to dwell among His people, reversing the curse of Genesis 3 and welcoming sinners back into His presence after having been cut off so long ago, it was the “Holy Spirit” (God’s Spirit) who “filled” all those who believed (Acts 2:4, 17, 33).
When Ananias and Sapphira lied about their offering in Acts 5, Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds? …You have not lied to man but to God” (Acts 5:3-4).
When God explicitly revealed the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s covenant promises through the Gospel, it was “the Spirit” who spoke and made this clear (Acts 10; especially 11:12).
Indeed, sometimes in the New Testament the author will refer back to something that was written in the Old Testament by saying, “the Holy Spirit says...” (Heb. 3:7) or “the Holy Spirit spoke...” (Acts 1:16) or “the Spirit… was indicating [and] predicted” (1 Pet. 1:11).
The New Testament teaches us that all of Scripture is the product of men writing the very words of God “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16).
While “worshiping the Lord” in Acts 13, the people of God were directed by divinely authoritative words from “the Holy Spirit” who commanded them (Acts 13:2).
When deciding on what to do with the new Gentile converts in the early church, it was the word of “the Holy Spirit” which authoritatively guided the way forward (Acts 15:28).
And in the appointment of elders/pastors/overseers in New Testament churches, the Bible teaches us that it is “the Holy Spirit” who ultimately raises up and places qualified men to serve in such a role (Acts 20:28).
Friends, all of this is to say that the Holy Spirit speaks with the voice of God; the Holy Spirit directs and guides with the authority of God; and the Holy Spirit judges and rules with the power of God!
The Holy Spirit is God!
The singular God of the Bible has revealed Himself as three persons.
God has revealed Himself as one what and three whos.
God is one God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit.
But there is one more truth we need to understanding in order to bring this doctrine home… The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are not merely modes or parts of God… These three are distinct from one another.
3) The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are distinct
3) The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are distinct
This is the most abstract (and intellectually difficult) of the points I’ll argue today, but the good news is that it’s also the shortest.
Jesus’s baptism is the clearest place we can see all three persons of the Trinity on display, distinctly working/acting, and in relationship with one another.
In Matthew 3, we read that “Jesus came… to John, to be baptized by him” (v13).
And “16 when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he say the Spirit of God descending… 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Here, we see the Spirit descending, the Son being baptized, and the Father speaking.
To put this in more concrete terms:
God the Son did not send Himself to live and die for sinners.
He willingly came and was sent by the Father (Jn. 14:24).
Jesus did not pray to Himself during His earthly ministry.
He prayed to the Father (Jn. 17).
Jesus does not intercede to Himself on behalf of those for whom He came to die.
Jesus is the resurrected mediator, interceding for us at the Father’s right hand (Rom. 8:34).
This is indeed a bit more abstract, but to deny the distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit is one of the oldest official heresies… and it remains popular among some professing Christians today.
Unitarians, modalists, and Oneness Pentecostals reject the doctrine of the Trinity by confusing the distinctions between each person of the Godhead. And by so doing, they flatten out the most profoundly relational characteristic which God has revealed about Himself.
This not only loses the richly intentional and lovingly personal features of the gospel; it is a conscious and deliberate step away from Christianity altogether.
To know God, to be a Christian, we must not force God’s revelation of Himself to fit into our preconditioned philosophical categories. Instead, we must take God at His word… we must embrace the God of the Bible as He has revealed Himself… as an explicitly singular God who is simultaneously and distinctly Father, Son, and Spirit.
4) The Trinity is Simple and Practical
4) The Trinity is Simple and Practical
The doctrine of the Trinity is simple in the sense that we don’t have to explain it.
Friends, I think the doctrine of the Trinity gets a bad rap… sometimes Christians talk and act like this is the one doctrine that baffles the human mind.
But I challenge you… explain to me any of God’s uniquely divine attributes!
Describe for me the mechanics of God’s aseity, if you can.
How about God’s impassibility?
Maybe you can tell me exactly what Christians mean when they claim that God is omnipresent or transcendent or unchangeable?
And if you think you’re ready to fully explain any of these then you simply haven’t thought very much about them!
The doctrine of the Trinity, like these others, which touch on the very nature of who and what God is, is outside of our comprehension… And this is exactly as we ought to expect!
Why would anyone think that the creator and sustainer of the universe would be comprehensible to dependent and finite creatures like us?
The God of the Bible… the living God who was and is and is to come… will never be fully comprehended by us!
One day, Christians will gather in eternity to see and know God like we’ve never known Him before… And we will study and praise Him for ions without ever plumbing His depths!
Brothers and sisters, we do not have to explain the mechanics of God’s nature… we do not owe the philosophers any explanation when they say, “We can’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity!”
It is for us to learn what God has said or revealed about Himself in His word… and then we simply believe it.
If the Bible says that God is one, then I believe it.
If the Bible says that God is Father, Son, and Spirit, then I believe it.
If the Bible says that the Father is distinct from the Son, and the Son is distinct from the Spirit, and the Spirit is distinct from the Father… then I believe it.
The doctrine of the Trinity is practical in the sense that it comes into play with the basic experiences of the Christian life.
When you become a Christian, you trust in Jesus Christ as the divine Savior who is the Son of God.
When you speak of the gospel, you tell of how God the Father sent His divine Son into the world to be the human representative and savior of guilty sinners.
When you feel a sense (or an awareness) of God’s presence, you are enjoying the comfort and the joy of the Holy Spirit, who indwells all Christians.
When you pray, you speak to God, your heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, His Son, and by the power of His Spirit.
When you gather with fellow church members on the Lord’s Day, you offer worship to the one God… celebrating and embracing the only Savior… to be edified and built up in/by the power of the Spirit.
Friends, we believe and live according to the doctrine of the Trinity every day of our Christian lives.
One cannot say much of anything about the gospel, or the church, or the final judgment, or the unity all Christians share, or the final resurrection without referring to or explicitly affirming the doctrine of the Trinity.
We believe in the one and only God of the Bible who has revealed Himself consistently throughout Scripture as a Trinity; namely as Father, Son, and Spirit.
Today’s sermon is not primarily intended as a call to action, but a call to worship
It seems fitting here that we should sing the doxology.
Sing along if you know it… “Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.”
Holcomb, Justin. Know The Creeds And Councils. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014. Print.
Mohler, Albert. The Apostles' Creed: Discovering Authentic Christianity in an Age of Counterfeits. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2019. Print.
Packer, J. I. Affirming the Apostles’ Creed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008. Print